SHOGUN – Review by Diane Carson

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Shōgun explores 1600 Japan’s internal and external crises.

Based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, the new, ten episode Shōgun miniseries honors the country and time period of Japan, 1600. Into that world of internal and external strife, the British ship captain John Blackthorne thrusts himself, antagonistic to the Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries already established there. He is also appallingly uneducated in the culture he encounters.

Piloting the Dutch ship Erasmus, Blackthorne (significant name) and his crew become prisoners, pawns in a power struggle among five equal Regents with Toda Mariko as Blackthorne’s essential translator. The rivals strategize, scheme, and maneuver, attempting to become the Shōgun, military commander of the country. The complicated plot requires careful attention to track the subterfuge. As a bonus, this engaging story is based on actual historical events and individuals, strong men and women, each worth reading further about.

The series creators, Rachel Dondo and Justin Marks, rely heavily on Japanese, with Mariko providing necessary interpretation of events and dialogue in this superbly crafted work. An informative article in April’s American Cinematographer describes the distinctive technical and aesthetic choices for each episode. For example, in Episode 4, as the appealing, restrained romance between Mariko and Blackthorne develops, the lighting and camerawork is “gentle, soft, and subtle,” shifting to sharper cuts and extended shots as crises develop. Tight framing for Anjin, as Blackthorne is called, emphasizes his entrapment and alienation, while wider shots with depth of field deliver terrifying violent clashes, some of them unexpectedly bloody and brutal. At other items, handheld camerawork best expresses Anjin’s turmoil and confusion, often enhanced by silence.

The glorious art direction also features haunting sound, exquisite costumes, and magnificent sets. Bringing all this to believable life is a cast of masterful actors, led by Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Yoshii Toranaga, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko, and Cosmo Jarvis as Pilot-Major John Blackthorne. I hesitate to single them out because the entire ensemble elicits awe for their presentation of this astonishing world. Shōgun is in English and Japanese with English subtitles. The ten episodes stream on Hulu FX.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.